Aspasia of Miletus was born in the 5th century BCE in Miletus, Asia Minor on the shores of the Agean Sea. She is mentioned in the writings of Aeschines, Antishtenese, Plato, Socraticus, Aristophanes and Xenophon.
Miletus is now in the modern province of Aydın of Turkey. It is an important city for intellectuals. Thales, a mathematician and philosopher cited by Aristotle and others spent much of his life there. (Some say he was born there.). Miletus was also the birthplace of Herodotus, the historian of the ancient Mediterranean world.
Aspasia of Miletus was the second daughter born into an aristocratic family. Her father's name was Axiochus; we do not know her mother's name.
She was both intelligent and beautiful. She devoted herself to philosophy and to eloquence. Even as a young woman she was known for the power and beauty of her speech. She left Miletus for Athens, which was the great center of power and learning in the Greek world. It is not known how she arranged this trip. some believe she might have gone with a relative, Alcibiades.
Now, before we can understand Aspasia of Miletus or her place in Athens, we need to understand the roles of women in Athens during the great age of Pericles.
For women in Athens who were not slaves, there were only two social classes.
First, there were the Athenian citizen wives. What did it mean to belong to this social class? How did such women live?
Athens was a city state with about thirty thousand citizens. Citizenship was an inherited privilege. All Athenian citizens worshiped the same gods. They went to the same temples. They often owned the same properties and they were generally related to one another through ties of marriage down the centuries. Citizenship was restricted. Only the children of parents who were citizens could be citizens. Actually, only the children of parents whose parents were citizens, could be citizens. Hence the importance of grandparents as well as one's parents, if one was a citizen of Athens.
It was imperative to the citizens of Athens to keep citizenship restricted to legitimate citizen offspring. This coupled with the general beliefs that it was natural (of nature) that women were made to love And that it was believed that men were not able to resist loving women there needed to be clear and strict social mores lest children would be born who would have some non-citizen genes.
The result was that the Athenians set strict limits on their citizen women. Citizen women were kept at home, usually on the second story of the house. There were restricted from public gatherings. No banquets for them. Men dined at banquets without their wives present. (Think of Plato's Symposium ...or even Xanthippe's absence from her husband Socrates' execution).
Women were required to cover themselves fully if they ventured into a public place and almost the only public place for an Athenian citizen woman was the temple worship. (Read: Lysistrata (full text online at: Lysistrata )for some insight into women's public experience through temple worship.)
Young girls came of age in such social restriction. They were educated in the domestic arts. When it was time for marriage Old women generally acted as matchmakers. Marriage between Athenians generally happened by age 15. Once married, the restrictions continued. And that was the general life of citizen women.
Now there were women who rebelled and slipped out and.... but the punishments and disgrace if caught were formidable! These included, among other things, the loss of protection of the law and so anyone could do anything as long as they did not actually kill such a woman in their interaction.
However, citizen women were not the only non slave women in Athens. There was another class, the one to which Aspasia of Miletus belonged.
Second, there were the Athenian strangers, specifically the "Athenian stranger women". Now, these Athenian strangers, were also free women and not slaves. But they shared with non citizen men the dubious distinction of no protection under the law. Anyone could do anything to such 'strangers' excepts kill them.
If 'strangers' had any protection, it came from the goodwill of an Athenian citizen. As a result, many 'stranger women' established relationships with male Athenian citizens who would offer them such protection. (NOTE: Rereading Plato's Laws where an Athenian stranger is the questioner is instructive once you understand the real situation of Athenian Strangers. )
Athenian citizen fear The great fear in the Athenian state was that the purity of the citizen population might be corrupted through the introduction of children into a citizen household who had a non citizen parent..... Or ....as bad if not worse would be the angering of the City's gods through allowing one of these foreigners/strangers to be involved in temple worship or the administration of the city.
Athenians believed it was imperative to keep the city for and by citizens alone.
But Athens, especially in the Age of Pericles, was a remarkable city: full of art and theater and ideas. In addition male citizens, as noted above, did not allow their citizen wives to be at their many banquets. These male citizens did want women present. They wanted women for conversation, for their beauty and their wit. And this becomes a role for 'stranger women' in Athens. There develops the role of the Hetaire, companions of male citizens.
Some Hetaira held their position by supplying the most basic wants of the citizen men but others were truly educated and sophisticated. These women studied the arts and philosophy. They lived highly respectable lives. These stranger women were the educated non citizen women of Athens and it was this group that Aspasia of Miletus joined when she left her home for Athens.
Apasia of Miletus was brilliant and cultured. She met Pericles and he became enamored of her. Eventually he made an arrangement with his wife in which she received a divorce from him and then was married to another citizen. Then Pericles took Aspasia of Miletus into his home as his companion. His home became their home. She was a Hetaira, a companion of a male citizen.
Note: Some writers list Hetaire's as prostitutes...but the real situation was far more complicated that Hetaire;s being 'women of the street' as the above explanations shows.
Aspasia of Miletus was a remarkable woman. She had outstanding beauty but even more outstanding was her intelligence and learning. This home of Aspasia of Miletus became a 'salon'. All the great men of Athens were there: Socrates, Anaxagoras, Phidias and probably the great dramatists as well as statesmen and foreign emissaries. Aspasia of Miletus came to Athens as a well educated woman and Athens welcomed her.
Socrates named Aspasia of Miletus as his teacher of rhetoric.
Glenn comments about Aspasia of Miletus as follows: "Both Aspasia and Plato taught that belief and truth were not alike and rhetoric has the potential to deviate from the truth and be deceitful to the audience. Cicero's chapter on argumentation was based on Aspasia's lesson of induction. She even opened an academy for women, which later became a "popular salon" for Plato, Socrates, Anaxoagoras, Sophcles, Phidias, Pericles, and other philosophers at the time Pericles." It is reported that Aspasia of Miletus' work influenced Plato and she was honored by Plato, Xenophon, Cicero, Athenaeus, and Plutarch.
It is also reported that Aspasia of Miletus exercised a great deal of influence on Pericles. Some historians blame her for the Samina revolt and the Peloponnesian War. At one point the comic poet Hermippus charged her with impiety, but Pericles successfully defended her.
After the deaths of Pericles's two sons born by his first wife, Pericles obtained full rights of citizenship for his son by Aspasia of Miletus!!!
There is a biographical sketch and two images of marbles of this philosopher at Aspasia of Miletus
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia; Glenn, 1994a
"The Position and Influence of Women in Ancient Athens" by James Donaldson in Appleton's Journal of General Literature [pp. 415-424] ( Available online) "Character of Aspasia " by Re. B. F. Telft, in The Ladies' Repository: a monthly periodical, devoted to literature, arts, and religion. [pp. 354-358] (Available online)
This page was updated January 10, 2015.